Ballet Stars
Katherine Barkman as Kitri in Ballet Manila's "Don Quixote." Photo by G-nie Arambulo

At age 18, Katherine Barkman packed her bags to move nearly halfway around the world after receiving an email from Ballet Manila's artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. A competition dancer with no professional experience, Barkman submitted a video to Macuja-Elizalde, and jumped at the opportunity to start her career as a principal with the Southeast Asian company. "It was an unconventional path, but I had to just go for it!"

Barkman's journey started in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where her dance training quickly progressed from recreational classes to studying the Vaganova method with Nadia Pavlenko at the Academy of International Ballet Theater. By 16, she was training privately with Pavlenko for six to seven hours a day. "Most children start that syllabus at age 10, so I had to learn quickly," she notes. "It was difficult, but the Russian style worked for my body and set the tone for me as a dancer."

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Ballet Stars
Karina González in "Romeo and Juliet" choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

As told to Julie Diana

Juliet is one of my favorite roles—you go through every emotion in just three acts. I had done different versions of the ballet before, but it was an amazing opportunity when my director Stanton Welch created the role for me. I watched a lot of videos to prepare and struggled at the beginning because I was trying to copy what other ballerinas had done. It took me a while to find my own way. But now, every step comes from deep inside.

I love that Juliet starts as an innocent little girl, playing with the nurse like she's her best friend. When she goes to the ball, she sees this person that moves her world around. I'm married now, and know what it means to give everything to someone and make decisions that will change your life. And because of the love you have for that person, it is worth it.


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Chung with Vitor Luiz in Coppélia. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Frances Chung, as told to Julie Diana

All of Swanilda's actions come from a place of pure fun. She's kind of sassy, but I like bringing out her playfulness instead of taking a more bratty approach. The role comes quite naturally to my personality. When my partner and I are in the studio, we're very playful even though we're working hard and refining everything. I try to have a good time and I think that it translates onstage.

As Swanilda, my love for Franz is very youthful, like when you hit someone because you like him. I'm quite confident in myself and in our love, even though I see him blowing kisses at another girl (really a doll). I get mad for a second, but at the end of the day I know he's going to choose me. That's my underlying feeling. When I finally make the connection that she's a doll, I think it's hilarious!

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Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz in Balanchine's Coppélia
(Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB)

In Balanchine's comedic Coppélia, San Francisco Ballet's Frances Chung brings out Swanilda's playful side.

All of Swanilda's actions come from a place of pure fun. She's kind of sassy, but I like bringing out her playfulness instead of taking a more bratty approach. The role comes quite naturally to my personality. When my partner and I are in the studio, we're very playful even though we're working hard and refining everything. I try to have a good time and I think that it translates onstage.

As Swanilda, my love for Franz is very youthful, like when you hit someone because you like him. I'm quite confident in myself and in our love, even though I see him blowing kisses at another girl (really a doll). I get mad for a second, but at the end of the day I know he's going to choose me. That's my underlying feeling. When I finally make the connection that she's a doll, I think it's hilarious!

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Smuin Ballet's Terez Dean. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Smuin Ballet

From the outside, one might assume that the stars onstage are leaders offstage, too. It might be so, but life in a company is usually more complex. Opportunities to volunteer, teach or represent fellow colleagues allow dancers at any rank to develop important skills and make their voices heard. Others take the lead simply by lifting company morale or setting a good example in the studio. In fact, leadership takes many forms—and you don't have to be a principal ballerina to be an influential company member whom others look up to. For these three dancers, stepping into leadership roles has given greater meaning and fulfillment to their careers.

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Ballet Stars
Making rhythm fascinating. Peck in Who Cares? Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Carefree and confident, New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck lights up the stage in “Fascinatin' Rhythm," one of the principal solos in Balanchine's Who Cares? “It's one of my favorites," she says. “Every time I perform it, I feel like I'm doing it for the first time." Choreographed for Patricia McBride in 1970, “Fascinatin' Rhythm" requires impeccable technique and serious musicality to show off George Gershwin's jazzy rhythms. Here, Peck shares how she makes the solo such a showstopper.

Musicality Matters

“Musicality is number one," says Peck. “It's the driving force behind the whole variation." She recommends finding moments of stillness to contrast faster movements. In the first section, Peck sustains her piqué coupé to plié, “because it makes the hitch-kick afterward seem that much more surprising." Before the slow sultry section, she pauses before slinking into another pose. “You can be still in the midst of the crazy-fast solo and show another facet of your dancing."

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Julie Kent bowing with her son after Romeo and Juliet. Photo Courtesy ABT.

Who was your biggest inspiration while growing up as a dancer?

My first experience in a professional environment was when I was a supernumerary in New York City Ballet's Coppélia. Patricia McBride was so kind and gentle with all the children. That made a big impact on me. Balanchine was still alive, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Peter Martins and Suzanne Farrell were dancing. They were the most exciting, exotic and wonderful creatures.

You joined ABT when you were just 16. What was the most valuable thing you learned during those early years?

I learned to learn. I studied all the great ballerinas at ABT to identify what made each of them so wonderful, and to see if there was any of that I could develop in myself. I could never balance like Cynthia Gregory—I realized that was beyond my capability. But I tried to understand how she did it and how she used that command of her physicality to enthrall people.

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Kitchens with Jerome Tisserand in Afternoon of a Faun. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.

The woman's role in Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun is surprisingly hard. The plot seems straightforward enough: two dancers happen upon each other in a studio. But the character, created for Tanaquil Le Clercq in 1953, oozes sensuality, innocence and vanity while responding—through the mirror—to her partner's gaze. Here, Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kylee Kitchens offers insights into the “less is more" approach to Robbins' choreography.

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